How did TV’s most storied newsmagazine make such a huge mistake? And why won’t they explain exactly what happened?
Those are the questions left unanswered days after 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager retracted an Oct. 27 story about the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that featured a suspect source: government contractor Dylan Davies.
Davies, who wrote a book under a pseudonym with a harrowing account of rushing to the scene, reportedly told a different story about that night to the FBI. When The New York Times unearthed the discrepancy last week, Logan, Fager and CBS News took back a story they had defended strenuously until then.
I don’t know the answer to the first question, about how 60 Minutes, after spending what Logan said was a year looking into the attack at Benghazi, could have missed an incident report that contradicted Davies’ stories or details of his FBI interview. Or how they could have forgotten to note that Davies’ book on the subject was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint specializing in conservative-oriented nonfiction that is owned by a subsidiary of CBS Corp. (Threshold has since withdrawn the book, The Embassy House: The Explosive Eyewitness Account of the Libyan Embassy Siege by the Soldier Who Was There.)
But I suspect the answer to the second question — why Sunday’s 77-second apology on 60 Minutes included no details on how they made the mistake — can be found in a single word:
That’s the shorthand reference to a 2004 story then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported on the short-lived spin-off 60 Minutes Wednesday that was critical of President George W. Bush’s stint in the National Guard during the Vietnam War in the early ’70s.
The story came, in part, from memos supposedly written by Bush’s Guard commander at the time; after the story aired, several document experts concluded their authenticity could not be verified.
CBS News, under extreme pressure from conservative critics who already distrusted Rather, commissioned an independent report on how the mistake happened, which turned out to be highly critical of the reporting process.
When the dust cleared, the producer of the piece was fired, three other executives resigned and 60 Minutes Wednesday was canceled. Not long afterward, both CBS News President Andrew Heyward and Rather were out the door. The anchor eventually sued the network over how he was treated, and it took years for CBS News to recover its footing.
Small wonder executives there might not want to risk a repeat by talking too much about how they made the Benghazi mistake.
Liberal critics haven’t yet taken on 60 Minutes with the same intensity that conservatives pursued Rather over Memogate, which may explain why Fager and the network have issued such limited apologies. Since Fager also serves as executive producer of 60 Minutes, it would be tougher for him to discipline others and exempt himself in this case.
Some have noted that Logan gave a passionate speech last year calling for America to “exact revenge” for the killings — not exactly the kind of detached judgment you might expect from an investigative reporter.
Still, the tight-lipped approach is not uncommon. Some other news outlets haven’t detailed why they made major errors in their reporting on other big stories, such as the search for the Boston Marathon bombers and the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Much as some media critics might think such explanations help clear the air, Memogate may provide a more chilling lesson:
Perhaps the most effective way TV news outlets keep credibility with viewers after a big mistake is to just get past it as soon as possible.
Eric Deggans joined NPR this fall as its new TV critic. He has been a journalist for 23 years and a TV critic for 15. Subject him to enough tough questions, and he’ll admit he can’t stop watching Law & Order: SVU and old Everybody Loves Raymond reruns.